New Series: Christian Engagement in Politics

By Dr. Darrin Hanson (aka “Professor Knowsome”)

Over the past couple months I had the opportunity to teach an adult education series at Geneva Campus Church in Madison, WI.  I was asked to lead a series entitled “Christian Engagement in Politics”.  The impetus for the was the then upcoming election in November of 2012.  The church leadership wanted to help the church members think through what it meant to “think Christianly about politics”.

The first Sunday was an overview of what we would be discussing the rest of the series and jumped in with a couple controversial questions.  The first question was: Should Christians be engaged in politics at all?  If so, how?  Should the participation be through the church or as individuals?  To get the discussion rolling, I posed three competing viewpoints:

  1. Christians are called to be salt and light in the world.  In the modern world, this is very difficult to accomplish outside of politics.  The Church, which serves as the organizational body for Christians, should spearhead this.
  2. Politics is an inherently dirty business and Christians should have nothing to do with it.
  3. Individual Christians should be engaged in politics, but not the Church.  When the Church becomes directly involved, it loses some of its moral authority in the community.
Obviously, there are two strong views and one in-between view.  What also should be obvious is that these are not the only three options.  But each of these carries certain implications that should be fleshed out.
The first viewpoint supposes an activist Church–one that takes the lead in trying to transform society.  This is a common perspective in classical Reformed and modern (US) Baptist thought.  (I will provide more details on the theological perspectives in a future post.)  Often the idea stems from the belief that it is the Church’s responsibility to prepare the world for the return of Christ.  Others base Christian activism on a very immediate concern about contemporary cultural degradation and the difficulty of raising godly children in this environment.  There are, of course, other reasons to encourage an activist Church that we don’t really have time to get into.
But there are some important assumptions with this first viewpoint.  There is an assumption that the Church, as an institution, should act as a single institution.  While this is easy to understand in the Roman Catholic Church, it becomes more complicated in Protestant denominations.  One could think of each denomination as a separate entity that would act individually.  Given the wide variety of political views in the variety of denominations, one can imagine a cacophony of political noise claiming the “Christian voice”.
This first viewpoint also assumes the appropriateness of Church involvement in the political realm, if only because it is necessary for social change.  This is hardly an uncontroversial position.  Politics is a dirty business and it is difficult for anyone to get involved and not get some dirt on them.  This is even true of churches and most church leaders with whom I’ve spoken who are directly engaged in politics themselves are keenly aware of these dangers.  Even if one stays clean in politics, it is difficult to maintain the image in the public of having stayed clean.  So, those who call for direct Church institutional engagement in politics are rating the importance of that engagement highly enough to take the risks.  According to this view, the Church can’t be the salt and light of the world while remaining hidden from public view in an arena as important as politics.  The engagement in politics is a mission that comes with a heavy investment.

The inherent dirtiness of politics is what drives the second viewpoint.  From this perspective, the Church cannot help but be negatively influenced by political participation.  I know some strong Christians in the US who refuse to even vote because they are so convinced that the entire system is that corrupt.  Historically, this perspective can be found in the Anabaptist tradition.  This tradition is concerned for the sanctity of the Church and that even the appearance of political influence will sully the the view held of the Church even if it does not actually sully the Church members.

The third viewpoint is one of many middle ground perspectives.  It encourages political engagement by individual Christians, but not as a Church institutionally.  The rationale for this is that it is important to be engaged in the political realm, but politics will inevitably dirty the reputation of any institution engaging in it.  Individuals are more likely to come away unscathed.  An additional consideration is that individuals who happen to disagree with the Church’s political positions might not be able to separate the Church’s political messages from its spiritual ones.

As I said before, these are not the only three possible perspectives.  The point of using these three is simply to get our mental juices flowing.    So, in summary, here are a few questions to think about:

  • What does it mean for the Church to be “salt and light” in the political world?
  • Can the Church or individual Christians engage in politics without being corrupted by it?  Even if they aren’t corrupted, can they avoid the appearance of being corrupted?
  • How does engaging in politics affect the Christian witness?

 

 

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